Entertainment And News

29-Year-Old Pretends To Be A High School Student Because She Is Lonely & Wants To Feel Safe Again

Photo: Rutgers University, Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock
A photo of Hyejeong Shin at Rutgers University is next to an image of a classroom setting

Hyejeong Shin, a 29-year-old Rutgers University graduate, has been accused of falsifying her birth certificate to enroll in a New Jersey high school.

Shin has been living in the United States for 13 years, apart from her family in South Korea, and at first, the parents of school children assumed the worst when she was realized to be an adult rather than a 16-year-old. But her attorney is arguing her reasoning was more sad than sinister.

Hyejeong Shin pretended to be a high school student because it was a place of 'safety.'

Shin attended classes for four days at New Brunswick High School before administrators learned the truth about her age. Before they caught her this January, she had exchanged numbers with multiple students and even had asked to spend time with them outside of school. 

“Some of the girls I know, the girl did ask them to hang out at Commercial Avenue, but they never showed up, and she started acting weird with them,” one student said in an interview with CBS News. “It’s scary because you never know what could happen.”

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“It was very unsafe for the school and most of the students in there,” another student added. 

After she was caught, administrators circulated her picture throughout the school. Some were surprised she was impersonating a freshman student because she didn’t look the part.

“She was pretending to be a freshman, which is more surprising because I don’t believe she looks like a freshman,” another student said.

But her family-appointed New York attorney Darren Gelber paints a different story of her intentions.

“At no time was anyone or any student in danger, and this entire case is more about my client wanting to return to a place of safety and welcoming and an environment that she looks back on fondly and nothing more,” Gelber said.

New Brunswick police seconded that viewpoint stating they don’t believe she had any aim to hurt students or faculty when enrolling in the high school.

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Shin came from South Korea to the United States alone when she was just 16 years old.

She attended a private boarding school in Massachusetts before enrolling at Rutgers University, majoring in political science with a minor in Chinese. She was even named a learning community scholar in 2017.

She practiced meditation, loved singing, and was studying for a master’s degree before her life started to fall apart. Court documents said that she got a divorce and fell $20,000 behind on her rent before taking the odd leap to become a high school student again.

“I’m no psychologist, but separated from her family and being in a different country — as well as a couple of other stressors in her life — may have caused her to act very uncharacteristically,” Gerber told the New York Times.

He describes her actions as a means to attain friendships similar to those she had at her old boarding school over a decade ago. But her decision came with heavy consequences. A grand jury indicted her for providing a “false government document and hindering her own prosecution,” according to the New York Post. On Monday, she pled not guilty to the charges.

If convicted, she faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

Her attorney said Shin is trying to get accepted into a pre-trial intervention program so that she can avoid possible jail time if found guilty. In addition to that, she plans to return to South Korea.

But for now, she’ll have to wait for her next court date, which is still pending.

The school superintendent says they will review their enrollment process to identify false documentation better.

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Ethan Cotler is a writer living in Boston. He writes on entertainment and news.